Is It Hot? Or is It Not?

Steamy. Sweet. Mild. Nuclear. Heat levels in romance are more complex than labels on taco sauce.

Romance means heat.  Whether the heat is heart-warming, like a Hallmark Christmas special, or raging completely out of control like……well, I don’t know for sure. But, you get the idea. All of us who love to read romance novels are looking for some level of sensual connection between the hero and heroine in our books. We want to feel the love!

Honestly, though, most of us are also looking for an emotional and/or spiritual connection. This can develop in conjunction with the physical relationship or before or after, depending on the type of story being told. In order to keep this post to a reasonable length, we’ll tackle the emotional/spiritual development aspect of romance in another post.

So, how do writers gauge the level of sexual interaction their characters will have and balance the emotional? Every romance writer probably has her own scale when it comes to what’s hot and what’s not, and the internet is rife with opinions. I’ve posted a curated list of some great sites below for your enjoyment.

Here are the guidelines and vocabulary I use in my work.



man and woman holding hand while walking
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This heat level is the kind that gives you a warm, fuzzy, “ooohhhhh” kind of feeling when you read it. It may involve a sweet kiss or a touch of a hand or brushing hair back off his/her face, hand-holding – definitely not any sexual overtones or even implications at this level. It’s just enough heat to indicate genuine affection and caring. Any thought processes at this level are indicated generally rather than specifically (i.e. “He was spending way too much time thinking about her” rather than “He closed his eyes and remembered the way her breasts felt when she fell against him in the snow.”)


boy girl kiss love
Photo by ira dulger on

Heating up a little. This involves more intentional physical contact. The characters may or may not acknowledge to themselves that they are attracted to one another, but they find ways to “accidentally” touch. Or, one or other of them intentionally initiates a kiss or hug. All this happens with clothes on and hands outside the clothes.

Sizzle Stage—

two people laying on a bed covered with a floral comforter
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Skin is definitely involved at this level, along with loss of clothing. Heat at this stage gives fairly graphic explanations of who’s touching what body part and how it feels. The bedroom door is wide open here. Internal dialogue in this heat level often includes post-coital ruminations by one or both partners.

Too Hot for Me-

bonfire burning burnt campfire
Photo by Pixabay on

This heat level, in my opinion, includes anything involving more than two partners, BDSM, erotica, or extremely graphic descriptive sexual interactions.

My Tendencies

WRITING: I tend to write comfortably in the mild/sweet to moderate heat levels. I’ve ventured into the sizzle level a couple of times and I just can’t seem to write these scenes very well. I had a client once who kept asking for more heat, but saying he wanted a “Jane Austen” feel to the book — Yep. I decided to stick to writing more “Ahhhhh” kinds of moments than ones that require other types of exclamations.

READNG: My reading preferences fall mostly in the mild/sweet to moderate level, but some of my favorite romance novelists are wizards at writing strong love scenes incorporating the sizzle level. The Survivors Club series by Mary Balogh is a great example of this skill. In these books, the sex doesn’t overwhelm the story, but add a poignancy that builds the relationship between the hero and heroine.

Curated list

Well. So much for my personal preferences. Here’s a list I’ve culled from the plethora of online opinions regarding heat levels in romance. Very informative, and, in some cases, downright funny! Enjoy!

It’s Getting Hot in Here: A Romance Writer’s Guide to Heat Levels

Shannon Caldwell gives a great summary of levels on a scale of 1-5. (Mild, Medium, Hot, Nuclear, Erotic)—The first four sound like labels on taco sauce jars……… 😃

A Romance Rookie’s Guide to Heat Levels

This is a very clever analytic description of heat levels including sweet, moderate, sensual, and erotic using the same couple in each scenario. Absolutely hilarious and spot-on! 😃

How to Rate Heat in Your Romance Novel

Tara Mayoros created this fantastic comparison of romance novel heat levels with rock climbing difficulty designations. Genius!!! 😃

And, last, but not least, this great infographic from the editors at Harlequin in their “So You Think You Can Write” section: Harlequin Thermometer: Heat Levels by Series


How about you? What’s your comfort level reading and/or writing heat levels?



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